20 Things You Might Not Have Realised About An Officer And A Gentleman
At the turn of the 80s, Richard Gere was the Hollywood star of the moment. Having just starred in American Gigolo (1980), he had turned heads as both a sex symbol and an actor of substance, one keen to hone his craft.
So it must have been a little surprising that Gere then plumped for a more straightforward romance movie, one about a US Navy recruit struggling to choose between his girlfriend and his career. An Officer and a Gentleman was a film underestimated at every turn, and yet nowadays it’s come to be seen as a classic love story.
If you’ve got nowhere else to go right now, why not join us as we revisit the film that promoted both the Navy and fabric whiteners?
20. The film’s title comes from an old Royal Navy expression
Stop to think for a moment: what does An Officer and a Gentleman actually mean? Sure, it’d be a good title for a film about a Navy officer who falls in love with a wealthy philanthropist, but Zack Mayo (Gere) is neither an officer nor a man of means.
The title of the film actually derives from the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, recorded in an 1813 court martial against Colonel Sir J Eamer, “for behaving in a scandalous, infamous manner, such as is unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman…”
Later, the usage of the phrase would be formally codified in the US Uniform Code of Military Justice, in 1860. Over time, the phrase has been more commonly shortened to ‘conduct unbecoming’.
So what does it mean to act in an ‘unbecoming’ manner? Generally speaking, offences that do not match the ideals that the Navy has for its officers, even if these would not typically be prosecuted by the civilian authorities. These include cheating on a test, insulting colleagues or superiors, and being drunk and disorderly.
In the film, Mayo’s unbecoming conduct is his continued fixation with his civilian relationship, rather than letting it go and focusing on his naval training.
19. Folk music singer John Denver was initially set to play the lead role
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Richard Gere playing the lead role of Zack Mayo, but it’s hardest of all to imagine the part going to folk music legend John Denver.
Probably best known today for his song Take Me Home (Country Roads), the leap from studio to screen might not have been as unbelievable as you might first think.
For one thing, Denver had at the time only recently made his film debut – in a leading role, no less – in Oh, God! (1977), in which a supermarket manager is chosen by God to spread the gospel.
That film is, however, a comedy-fantasy far removed from the rough image producers saw in Gere’s American Gigolo. Denver was considered so square, in fact, that he dropped out of the single We Are the World (1985), because he believed his homespun image would hobble the song’s performance.
Denver would go on to star in a handful of other films, included a Western set in his beloved Colorado, Walking Thunder, and Gere became one of the decade’s most beloved heartthrobs.
18. John Travolta turned the film down
Disappointed not to move forward with John Denver, the studio ran through a series of other actors before ultimately landing on Richard Gere. One was the star of Saturday Night Fever (1977), John Travolta.
Travolta had a hit film in 1980 with Urban Cowboy, starring opposite none other than Debra Winger. Presumably seeking to reunite the two leads for a more conventional romance, producers approached Travolta to star in An Officer and a Gentleman.
However, Travolta turned the film down, and instead attempted to capitalise on the success of his earlier films, reuniting with Olivia Newton-John for Two of a Kind (1983). The film was a critical failure and a commercial disappointment.
This wasn’t the first time that Travolta had turned down a part that would eventually end up bringing Richard Gere acclaim; Travolta had also turned down American Gigolo.
These film choices sparked a period of critical derision for Travolta. Had he taken on Gere’s roles, however, we may never have had the Travoltaissance that began with Pulp Fiction (1994).
17. Jennifer Jason Leigh pulled out of playing the female lead
Much like the role of Zack Mayo, there was evident consternation over who would play the female lead, with Paula Pokrifki being offered to three actors before Winger.
In a move that might have been considered casting against type, the part was initially offered to Sigourney Weaver, who had broken through with 1979’s Alien. Weaver, however, turned it down, electing to make The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) instead.
The role was then offered to Anjelica Huston, at least in part because Jack Nicholson – her then-husband – was in the running to play Mayo. Huston turned the film down, too.
Having struck out twice, producers then sought a new, young actor, and offered the part to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Aged only 19 at the time, Leigh had recently dropped out of school to star in 1981’s Eyes of a Stranger.
Ultimately, Leigh would drop out of filming An Officer and a Gentleman to instead star in the high school comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High – perhaps because Gere was 13 years her senior.
16. Debra Winger was forced to do a nude scene
There’s a great deal of legal and contractual wrangling before shooting on a movie even begins. For Debra Winger, that bureaucratic morass ended up causing her significant issues on set, as she was forced to do a nude scene.
We’ve already noted the indecision around casting the leads, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that contracts for the film’s eventual stars – Gere and Winger – were somewhat rushed. In fact, Winger represented herself in negotiations.
Winger negotiated based on the script she had received; unfortunately, since scripts are notorious for changing quite drastically in the run-up to (and often during) filming, there were some details that she never thought to include in her contract.
When the script was altered to include a nude scene, Winger objected. Sex scenes in movies are hardly uncommon, but it should be noted that the scene shot for the original cut of An Officer and a Gentleman was significantly longer, and cut down to avoid an R-rating.
Still, Winder was made to shoot the (since-deleted) nude scene all the same: Winger’s objections were quashed because she hadn’t included a specific clause in her contract excluding nude scenes, and the sequence was filmed.
15. Richard Gere and Debra Winger feuded behind the scenes
We all know that, behind the scenes, on-screen couples often struggle to get along, however authentic their relationship might seem. Such is the case for Richard Gere and Debra Winger, who constantly feuded between takes on Officer and a Gentleman.
Winger, a notorious perfectionist, was regularly annoyed by what she perceived as Gere’s failure to emote, describing him as “a brick wall.”
Winger herself is unconcerned, saying in a 2002 Guardian interview that “I run in to Richard Gere quite a lot and he half jokes: ‘Are you still saying terrible things about me?’ … everyone has to get it into perspective.”
For his part, Gere has been complimentary of Winger’s acting prowess. “She’s really a kind of true heart in the camera,” Gere said at a 30th anniversary screening of the film in 2012.
“I could never be that way,” he continues. “I was too complicated. There were too many things going on.”
14. Louis Gossett Jr was kept away from the other actors in order to “intimidate” them
Besides ogling Richard Gere – which isn’t for everyone – Louis Gossett Jr is the best part of An Officer and a Gentleman. Starring as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley, Gossett is a brutally intimidating figure.
For the duration of the shoot, director Taylor Hackford insisted Gossett stay in a condo 20 miles from set. “The purpose of the forced separation,” Gossett writes in his memoir, An Actor and a Gentleman, “was so that I could intimidate my men more during my scenes.”
“[Hackford] had to put an end to what was happening during rehearsals, when I screamed at the recruits and they broke into giggles. The word in Hollywood was, ‘Have you heard? Lou lost his mind up there.’ Alone in my condo every night, I almost did.”
Hackford was also keen for Gossett to treat Gere as brutally as possible, insisting that he “lay it on him.”
“I fell into the same trancelike condition as when I had played Fiddler [in Roots],” Gossett writes. “It was utterly magical.”
13. Full Metal Jacket’s R Lee Ermey was the film’s military advisor
You might have heard about another actor playing a drill sergeant who was deliberated sequestered from his colleagues in order to increase that intimidation factor – that would be R Lee Ermey, perhaps cinema’s most famous drill sergeant, in Full Metal Jacket.
It’s more than just a coincidental connection: Ermey also worked as a technical advisor on An Officer and a Gentleman, several years before being cast in the film that would make his name – and in which he replaced the original actor.
In a reversal of his later fortunes, Ermey had originally been cast as the drill sergeant for Hackford’s film, but was swapped to an advisory role once Hackford recognised the importance and accuracy of having an African-American drill sergeant for a film set in Florida.
This also resolves a minor controversy in the world of cinema: that Ermey supposedly stole his derisive “steers and queers” comment from a Gossett ad-lib in An Officer and a Gentleman.
In fact, it derived originally from Ermey, who coached Gossett to use it, and who later used the line himself in Full Metal Jacket.
12. Richard Gere hated the film’s ending
It might be the most iconic moment of the film: Mayo arrives at Paula’s factory, angelic and radiant in his naval uniform, and carries her away to the sound of Up Where We Belong. And Richard Gere hated that ending.
Well, it’s more accurate to say that Gere hated the ending as it was written in the script, which said nothing of the music.
While shooting, however, his opinion began to change. On filming the scene, extras in the factory began to whoop, cheer, and cry. But, even then, Gere wasn’t fully convinced.
“After we shot it I still didn’t think it would work,” Gere said at the 30th anniversary screening. “Then it was this music but a different tempo and it didn’t work.“
“And I came in to see one cut that had this tempo,” Gere continues, “and I got chills on the back of my neck seeing it because everything was right all of a sudden.”
11. There was a stage musical version
If there’s nostalgia for it, you can make a musical out of it, and that’s exactly what Doug Day Stewart – the writer behind the original film – aimed to do for An Officer and a Gentleman.
Premiering in Sydney, Australia, the 2012 production had an original score composed by Robin Lerner and Ken Hirsch.
Unfortunately, the musical attracted venomous reviews as a “bloodless facsimile” of the film. “If there is a laborious, lifeless way to have a conversation, get across a plot point or express an emotion,” Deborah Jones’ review continues, “[they] have found it.”
The musical was pulled after six weeks, with Stewart angrily defending his efforts and deriding the review as “an ‘execution’ by someone clearly unable to feel human emotion.”
The musical returned last year in the UK in a jukebox style, ditching the original score in favour of popular hits such as Up Where We Belong, and Alone by Heart.
10. It had a historic win at the Academy Awards
An Officer and a Gentleman was received to critical acclaim and was nominated for several Oscars, but the only actor to win was Louis Gossett Jr for his portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Foley.
Nor was this a run-of-the-mill win: it was historic. In fact, Gossett was the first African-American in history to win the award, 54 white men having preceded him.
The first Academy Award won by a black actor was Best Supporting Actress, recognising Hattie McDaniels’ work in Gone with the Wind (1939), and would be followed by a win for Sidney Poitier as Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963).
While important and historic in their own right, both of these roles were African-American characters in either literal or economic servitude. Gossett’s win marked something different: a win for a black character in a position of authority.
“There I am, in 1982,” Gossett said in his book, “a black father figure making a man out of a white playboy. This made quite a statement…”
9. The motel where Sid hangs himself is now a tourist destination
An Officer and a Gentleman sees Sid Worley (David Keith) hang himself in a motel room after being rejected by a woman, and said room is a real place.
Worley has a panic attack and drops out of the Navy program, and is then rejected by the woman he’s been having an affair with. He then checks into a motel and kills himself.
If you’re a fan of the film, you can visit this popular tourist destination, located at the Tides Inn – how droll! – 1807 Water Street in Port Townsend, Washington.
While the inn has been extensively refurbished since the film premiered, the older part of the building remains intact. Apparently Worley’s room is the first on the left past the office.
A small plaque denotes that the location was used in An Officer and a Gentleman, though whether it says exactly what for is a mystery to us.
8. Richard Gere kicked Louis Gossett Jr in the groin while shooting the fight scene
In typical 80s style, the film ramps up to its finale with the two most obviously masculine figures beating each other to a bloody pulp.
Since Mayo is meant to be a martial artist, and Foley has been a tough guy throughout the film, there was no question that Gere and Gossett would have to put in the hours to make the sequence a success.
“Shooting the movie and then every hour I had outside of the actual shooting of the movie I was working with a karate master to learn karate stuff,” said Gere.
“But Lou was also learning karate…” Gere continues. “But for some reason he wasn’t able to get the routines. It just wasn’t happening. When we came to shoot the scene … he was struggling with it. I was getting p****d off. We didn’t have much time to shoot it and I kicked him.”
“He said, ‘Okay. That’s it. I’m out of here,’ and he left. And rightly so.” Producers were forced to fly in a body double from New Orleans to shoot portions of the fight. Thankfully, Gere and Gossett are now good friends.
7. Debra Winger later disappeared from Hollywood
In the 80s and early 90s, it seemed like Debra Winger had it all. But then she mysteriously disappeared from Hollywood, and only returned after the release of an acclaimed documentary – Rosanna Arquette’s Searching For Debra Winger (2002).
“I wanted out for years,” Winger told New York Magazine in 2002. “I got sick of hearing myself say I wanted to quit. It’s like opening an interview with ‘I hate interviews!’ Well, get out!”
Winger was nominated for Best Actress for her role in An Officer and a Gentleman, nominated again for Terms of Endearment a year later, and then a third time for Shadowlands in 1993, but had a six-year hiatus after the romantic drama Forget Paris (1995).
The hiatus might have been longer, but she returned to star in Big Bad Love (2001), which she produced and her husband directed.
Richard Gere has had no such hiatus – until his de facto retirement in 2017, Gere released a film at least every other year (and, more often than not, at least once a year).
6. The film was such a smash it made a return on investment of 2166%
Nowadays, it’s not unheard of for a film’s box office takings to surpass the $1 billion mark; then again, these are films that are made on generous budgets. An Officer and a Gentleman made an astonishing $130 million from a paltry $6 million budget.
For a sense of perspective, the highest grossing film of all time – Avengers: Endgame (2019) – obliterated the box office with a taking of $2.798 billion from a budget of $356 million. That’s a return on investment of approximately 785%.
But compare that to the figures for An Officer and a Gentleman, the tight budget of which meant a relative increase of more than 2166%. Does that make Richard Gere’s sailor film almost three times as good as the Avengers finale? We’ll leave that to you to decide.
The actual reason for the film’s colossal box office numbers is a little more mundane: Paramount gave free screenings around the country, believing that good word of mouth would promote the film.
After a mild opening weekend, demand to see An Officer and a Gentlemen grew and grew, and soon it became one of cinema’s first sleeper hits.
5. Dwight Yoakam is in the band at the ball
As one country and folk music legend passed on the film, in John Denver, another entered: Dwight Yoakam. One of those names is a pseudonym, and it’s not Dwight Yoakam.
One of the most successful country music artists of all time, Yoakam first got his big break in the mid-80s and has since become the most frequent musical guest in the history of the Tonight Show, as well as a biscuit salesman.
But in the early 80s, Yoakam was still a relatively minor musician trying to hit the big-time, and you can even spot him in An Officer and a Gentleman!
Yoakam is in the band at the ball as one of the lead singers. That’s right – apparently Yoakam wasn’t a commanding enough presence to be the sole lead. Tell that to his record sales, upwards of 25 million!
Yoakam has since gone on to have grander starring roles in films, beginning with 1996’s Sling Blade, often in collaboration with Billy Bob Thornton.
4. Paula’s dead dad is played by the film’s screenwriter
It’s not uncommon for crew members to have cameos in the films they help produce. One of our favourites is Steven Spielberg’s entirely invisible cameo in 1990’s Arachnophobia, but some are a lot simpler.
For An Officer and a Gentleman, screenwriter Doug Day Stewart was able to take advantage of a much smoother route to a cameo, and one that has an impact on the plot of the film.
When Stewart graduated from Claremont College with a degree in Liberal Arts, the US was on the cusp of entering into direct conflict with Vietnamese forces. In an interview with UK Theatre Network, Stewart claimed that he was visiting his parents when he “met an officer who told me we were about to go to war, though people didn’t really know anything about it yet.”
“He said I could join the Army where I’d probably die on some muddy battlefield,” Stewart continues, “or join the Navy and live through the whole thing. I wanted to live so I went to Newport Rhode Island [Naval War College] for 12 weeks.”
So, fittingly, when Paula shows Zack the picture of her dad graduating from naval college, it isn’t just a random picture – it’s Doug Day Stewart on the day of his graduation.
3. A Navy tradition reveals Mayo and Foley’s friendship
It’s never properly explained in the film, but the lasting connection between Mayo and his sergeant, Foley, is made clear through a simple Navy tradition, one that involves a shiny silver dollar.
At graduation, it’s customary for the new ensigns to give a silver dollar to whomever gives them their first salute. Naturally, since it’s at graduation, this is almost always the officer who trained them.
Since it’s the Navy, and everything is measured by absolute precision, it’s also a tradition for the officer to then place the dollar in their left pocket.
Instead, Foley puts the dollar in his right pocket, signifying that Mayo is a memorable and exceptional graduate. This is a subtle but important moment, especially given Foley’s position as a father figure to the reckless young ensign.
Foley puts all of the other graduates’ dollars in his left pocket, and the moral we’re getting from this is that you need to bust up your commanding officer’s face to really make an impression. Try it for yourself, and let us know if we’re right.
2. Producer Don Simpson hated Up Where We Belong
A powerful ballad with a strong hook and heroic sound, Up Where We Belong is a perfect fit for this naval romance. Except several producers despised the song and lobbied for it to be dropped.
For one thing, Jennifer Warnes hadn’t quite become the household name she is today – that is, synonymous with stand-out movie soundtracks. ((I’ve Had) The Time of My Life was another five years away.)
According to the DVD commentary, Taylor Hackford recalls Don Simpson saying that Warnes had never had a hit, and even bet them $100 the song would flop.
It’s worth remembering that the song was a strange beast, featuring as it did the saccharine voice of Warnes and the gruff tones of Joe Cocker, who previously had only been known for rock and soul.
The song ended up being a number 1 hit across the globe. Simpson’s choice, On the Wings of Love, was another successful song, but pales in comparison – it peaked at number 29.
1. Louis Gossett Jr feared he’d be targeted by racists
Being in a major movie success story naturally has all sorts of perks, such as better jobs and more offers. On the other hand, particularly if you’re a black actor in Hollywood, it can come with some hefty downsides. For Louis Gossett Jr, this meant attention from racists.
Writing in his book, Gossett notes that “Unlike in ‘Roots,’ when Kunta Kinte had been whipped, in ‘Officer’ I had beaten a white man, a popular movie star, fair and square.”
For a small portion of society, watching Foley defeat the whiter-than-white Mayo was seen as a challenge.
“Since that movie door was opened,” Gossett continues, “even today I have had to be extra careful to stay away from bars. I’m aware that there can always be one hotshot anxious to take me on and prove that what happened in ‘Officer’ was pure Hollywood.”
While he recognises that the response to the role has been “overwhelmingly positive,” the actor has still felt forced to leave venues by the back door in certain instances.